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My View: Visit to Italy features the good, bad and ugly

By Bob O’Connor

On a trip to Italy a few years ago, I was chased through Trevi Fountain by a crazy Roman gladiator holding a sword above his head and shouting, “Boofalo, Boofalo!” This guy, dressed liked Spartacus, asked me where I was from. When I told him Buffalo, he acted like we were long-lost relatives. “I want picture with you,” he shouted. So my wife snapped a photo – with our camera – and Mr. Gladiator demanded 25 euros.

There was no way I was paying this thug in a leather skirt that much money, so the chase began. I grabbed my long-suffering wife by the hand and we took off to the screams of, “Boofalo, you pay me!”

I recently returned to Rome and when we visited the fountain, I didn’t see any Russell Crowe wannabes lurking around. I asked our tour guide and she said the authorities realized these “actors” were making nearly six figures, tax free. So, like any good government, Italy said these guys had to get permits and pay taxes; that ended that.

In Italy, the art and architecture are truly awe-inspiring. I stood in front of the original David by Michelangelo. He carved this 17-foot-high sculpture from a single slab of marble and did it without a model. Plus the artist was 26 years old. When I was that age, I couldn’t change a flat tire.

We visited the Vatican and I was struck by the number of professional beggars wandering around and scamming the tourists. I watched one old lady who was stooped over and walking with a cane that shook violently as she worked the crowd. She would put her fingers to her lips and in the most pathetic voice cry, “mangia, mangia.”

Many tourists, fresh from seeing our rock star Pope Francis, handed over money to the poor woman. As soon as the crowd passed, the shaking stopped and she stood erect, waiting for the next group to pass.

Another woman, who appeared to be a Catholic nun, stood piously in St. Peter’s Square. She simply held out a cup for the good people to drop their euros in. She sported the most beatific smile, silently thanking her donors. As I looked more closely, I realized she was no more a nun than I am. Her outfit suggested the Dominican Order, but her head wrap was more Dior.

Visiting Pompeii, a coastal city that disappeared under 20 feet of volcanic ash in A.D. 79, is a humbling experience. These people had running water, restaurants and brothels. In the houses of ill repute, you can still see graphic murals depicting the whole range of services available for visiting seafarers. If you think our internet society is going to hell, we’ve got nothing on the Pompeiians. Outside the city walls, you can buy a souvenir book titled, “The Seventy Eight Positions of Pompeii.” I thought it would make a nice Christmas gift for my mother-in-law.

I love the Italian people and they apparently love American tourists with their fanny packs, water bottles and dollars. One vendor, a sweet little old lady so gnarled she looked like an olive tree, spotted me admiring a small necklace made of Murano glass.

She held both my hands and, with puppy dog eyes, said, “I sell to that lady over there for 50 euro; for you, 35.” As I thanked her and tried to move on, she gently touched my face and said, “You a good boy. Thirty euro.” I replied, “No, ma’am. But thank you.”

She let out a deep sigh and said, “Twenty euro.” I was beaten. I pulled an American $20 bill from my wallet (about 15 euros) and said, “This is all I have with me.” She snatched the bill and said that God would bless me.

I felt pretty good about my haggling skills and moved on the next stand. There was the identical necklace selling for 15 euros.

Bob O’Connor, who lives in Hamburg, has learned a lot on his trips to Italy.
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